Friday, July 27, 2007

HBH 40

Trojan Horse liquor
- Seeming innocence tricks us!
A shot of soju.


Yes, in keeping with my recent distaste for Chinese food, we went to a Korean place for my 'farewell party' (yes, I have one every year) the other night. And I did rather overindulge on soju, the disarmingly palatable rice spirit which is that country's national drink.

I fear I may have left an important part of my brain - and of my heart also - on Nanluoguxiang.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Going away

(Cross-posted from Froogville)


Yes, I am departing for the UK for three weeks, and not expecting to be keeping up the blogging habit from there. The rest is silence....

To keep you busy while I'm away, I have in the last few days attempted to initiate three contentious, open-ended discussions (I may even try to put these in the sidebar), on:

Chinese food - the worst cuisine in the world, just possibly?

The films of the Coen brothers - do you have a favourite?

Beijing v. Shanghai - which is the better city to live in, and why?


Please, during my absence, try to amuse yourselves with these. Or with noodling around my substantial archives.


I'll be back.


Guided Tour - recommended posts from the first quarter of this year

Pick of the Archive:

Favourite Posts, Jan. - March '07





1) Hangovers from many countries - 31st March

The Norwegians have a word (or rather, a phrase) for it.



2) Hangovers & Me - 31st March

A key incident from my childhood explains why I don't get hangovers.



3) The London Inn - 29th March

Sweet nostalgia - a recollection of childhood holidays in Somerset.



4) Besting Eric (Yet another memory of The Temple) - 27th March

Another story from one of my favourite pubs in Oxford: a description of the greatest pool shot I have ever played.



5) The Beermat Game (Another memory of The Temple) - 24th March

Hanging out with my best beer buddy, The Bookseller.



6) Remembering Ivor Cutler - 23rd March

A brief eulogy of a favourite writer, who I had just discovered passed on a year since.


7) A haiku with a classical reference - 23rd March

One of my best haiku, I think - inspired by an image in Homer's Odyssey.



8) The Temple - 22nd March

A hymn of praise for my favourite pool-playing pub ever.



9) Dialogue with a Search Engine - 18th March

A strange piece of cyber-idiocy prompts some philosophical musing.



10) HBH 20 - 16th March

An old, old haiku resurrected as an evocation of the aftermath of parties.



11) Hot off the press..... - 12th March

A humorous poem, but - as is usually the case with me - it has a dark heart; and on this occasion I was posting it within minutes of composition.



12) Mulligan's - 8th March

Another poem, another Lost Love - memories forever associated with my favourite bar in Dublin.



13) Wine Lake - 7th March

Stressed out by my party endeavours, I indulge in a RANT against some of my more thoughtless guests (well, one in particular!).



14) Snapshot of a fleeting brainstate - 4th March

A thumbnail description of the after-party mellow.



15) One Night in New York - Take 2 - 1st March

A poem about the greatest of all my Lost Loves, 'The Evil One', and an account of how it came to be written.



16) Early retirement - 26th February

My ex's renunciation of a social life prompted me to write a poem, 'Off Parties'.



17) The Seven Stars - 25th February

An anecdote from my days at Bar School: fond memories of a great friend from those days, and the wonderful bar we used to hang out in together.



18) The Wake - 22nd February

A final visit to a significant bar from my childhood, and a maudlin farewell to my late brother.



19) A blast from the past - 20th February

I rediscover an old poem about a Great Lost Love; this one really was originally written down on a napkin in a bar.



20) This week's bon mot - 11th February

I don't usually include any of the weekly bon mots in my 'best of' lists, but this line from H.L. Mencken is particularly fine.


21) Sometimes larking, usually darkening - 21st January

A strange micro-autobiography: how Philip Larkin (and an unknown literary competition contributor) saved me from a career as a lawyer.



22) Warped Genius - 18th January

I was delighted to happen upon this wonderfully oddball 'musical sculpture' project from Jem Finer (of The Pogues). I subsequently posted diagrams of the concept here and here.


23) Uncivilised Behaviour - 17th January

'Found humour' - an attempt to curb the riotous behaviour of Oxford undergraduates in the 19th Century.


24) When Unsuitable Role Models Collide - 17th January

Wistful musing on a meeting between two of my musical heroes, Tom Waits and Jem Finer.



25) In defence of my 'love life' - 14th January

Responding to some abuse from a passing 'troll', I describe my views on drink, alcoholism, and romance rather more fully than I have before. The comments on this one are pretty interesting too.


26) Perversity - 13th January

A short poem on the strange, masochistic pleasures of vainly 'window-shopping' for a girlfriend.


27) Valuable Drinking Time - 9th January

There are two kinds of Time: Regular Time and Valuable Drinking Time.



28) 'S Latin, innit? - 7th January

My Classical education raises its head again: a poem inspired by an incident in Virgil's Aeneid.



29) To be reborn - 4th January

A few words in praise of memory loss - and an outline for one of my proposed novels.



30) A Resolution (?!) - 1st January

The Inuit have a word for it!


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Battle Royale: Beijing v. Shanghai

Since I'm going away for a few weeks - and am likely to post little or not at all in that time - I thought I would leave you by trying to kick off an online debate on the relative merits (or failings) of China's two greatests cities, Beijing and Shanghai. (Yes, for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to leave Hong Kong, Chongqing, et al out of the discussion for now, if you don't mind.)

I have touched on this great controversy here on the Barstool a couple of times before (here and here), but I somehow failed to trigger the expected torrent of pugnacious opinions. Oh, well, third time lucky?

So, which do you prefer, and why?

Beijing, the seat of government, or Shanghai, the centre of commerce?

Shanghai is commonly said to have more of a 'European' feel to it, but is that necessarily a good thing? And does that make Beijing 'more Chinese' by comparison?

I love Shanghai as an occasional weekend getaway. I love the narrow little streets of the old foreign concessions. I love the fact that it's on a huge river, close to the sea. I love the fact that its taxi drivers mostly know where they're going. I love the fact that the grass is actually green there.

However, it is expensive, pretentious, and it rains all the time. It doesn't seem to have such a lively cultural scene as the capital, with a particularly notable deficiency in live music venues. The city has two of the worst airports in the world. Shanghai natives are notoriously snooty and exclusionary towards outsiders - even (especially!) other Chinese. And did I mention how bloody expensive it is??

On other issues - such as the purported superiority of Shanghai's women and of its cooking - I'm not really experienced enough to comment. I suspect these views have a lot of truth in them, but it's not enough to save the city for me. Good for a holiday, terrible place to live!

Most people I know share this overall assessment. But then, I live in Beijing; and most of the people I know who have a strong opinion on this topic are people (both Chinese and foreigners) who have moved from Shanghai to Beijing and have found that they prefer it here.

What about the great blog-reading public out there? Let's hear your views.

Midnight

That was the name of the bar that used to inhabit the upstairs portion of the little blockhouse that is now Rickshaw - a bar I have recently come to hate.

Midnight, however, was a delight. It was an early venture by George & Echo, two young Chinese who somehow became enamoured of cocktail culture and transformed themselves into a pair of self-taught aficionados and mean mixers. They have striven to provide in Beijing a slightly more affordable alternative to the swish-but-soulless hotel lounges, for those of us who share their enthusiasm for a strong drink elegantly served. Midnight, alas, was never very profitable, and disputes with the landlord led to its closing down after only 6 months or so; but it left us with more than a few happy memories.

Just the right level of intimacy - low lighting, soft music (an impeccable selection of classic jazz and blues). It's so rare (almost unheard of!) for a bar or restaurant in Beijing to get this right. And some pretty fine mixed drinks, too; some of their own devising. (Although George, in particular, could be somewhat over-fastidious at times - fussing around for ages with a spiral of lemon on the side of the glass while my thirst grew impatient.)

Of course, for me the fact that the place was deserted most of the time was an added draw. I think it was often pretty busy on the weekends, but I'd only ever go on slow weekdays, and I'd often have the place all to myself. Well, all to myself and a companion.

Yes, it was a wonderfully romantic spot. Unfortunately, I wasn't really able to take much advantage of that - although I did enjoy one very cosy, sexy, flirtatious evening with The Poet there, during our brief, intense affair. What I remember most vividly about that evening, however, is that as we were leaving - around midnight, appropriately enough - The Poet struck up a conversation with Echo about contemporary Chinese literature. Echo, it transpired, was a keen reader, and had some opinions on one of The Poet's favourite authors. In such circumstances, The Poet tends to let her enthusiasm run away with her; she can be formidably intense, unrelenting once she gets into an intellectual discussion; she completely loses track of time; she loses all awareness of anyone else in the room. After half an hour or more, Echo was plainly growing weary, getting anxious to close up the bar 'early' and head home. But The Poet was not reading any of the signals, she just would not stop. Echo and I established a silent communion: she looked at me in despairing appeal to help her get out of this conversation; I smiled apologetically and mugged that there was nothing much I could do; she rolled her eyes back at me, as if to say, "Doesn't this girl want to go home and sleep with you?" Ah, that was the problem, you see. I was never sure. She usually seemed far happier to stay up all night talking bullshit with total strangers than to come to bed. It was rather dispiriting.

But enough of that. All long ago now.

George & Echo have moved on to grander things - the much larger, louder, busier Q Bar (which I suppose I should write up one of these days). I wish them well; but it's really not a patch on Midnight. That's one bar I really miss (and not just for the romantic associations).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Wasteland

Huxley, the ever enterprising owner of the soon(alas)-to-be-demolished Nanjie, has been obstinately refusing to accept the death of this most prosperous of his bars since the builders started taking over the surrounding site a couple of months back. When the front gate of the car park in which it is sited was bricked off, he promptly set up this illuminated sign to reassure his regulars that it was still possible to get in through a small break in the perimeter a couple of hundred yards up the alley to the right. (Now, Huxley's English is pretty damn good, but we are all prone to moments of dyslexia when under stress.)

Next, he came up with the idea of running a 50kuai all-you-can-drink-and-eat promotion from 6-9 in the evenings to try to keep a little custom alive until the very end (a faded, hand-written sign on his outside 'terrace' defiantly announces that the bar will carry on serving "while the last brick is standing"). Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to have worked. Access is now rather tricky; the general ambience is a little too Sarajevo in the '90s; and the fickle Beijing bar crowd has already transferred its loyalties (to other, less deserving venues - like the appalling Rickshaw). I've been there a few times in recent weeks, and the place has been pretty much deserted. Last night - my sentimental farewell to The Car Park - I was there entirely on my own (at least, until a couple of refugees from The Bus Bar showed up: African 'entrepreneurs', down on their luck). Still, I was able to take a few photos just before the sun went down; I pigged out on the excellent, peppery beef kebabs, baked potatoes, pizza squares, and some surprisingly decent draft Carlsberg; and I said my silent goodbyes to a favourite haunt of the past.


When you slip through the hole in the perimeter wall round the side, this is the sight that now greets you. Not particularly welcoming!

Ah, the celebrated "Shut up - just drink" slogan. At least that will live on in another Huxley's bar somewhere.
This sign is now all that remains of the 'Red Ball' football club and bar, another victim of the car park's redevelopment.


Yugong Yishan, my favourite music bar in the city, is in its last week of operation. Difficult to see how it keeps going when it looks like this..... but the late-night, spliffed-up muso crowd are perhaps not so troubled by their surroundings.


And The Bus Bar was never a very inspiring spectacle from outside - but it looks positively forlorn amid this desolation now.

Amazingly enough, it's not just the bars and restaurants around the edge of The Car Park who are facing imminent eviction. Some people actually live here, albeit in the most meagre of circumstances.

And a token 'arty' shot to finish with.

So, a last fond farewell to The Car Park and its trio of GREAT, grungy bars. You gave us two very good years.

Monday, July 23, 2007

How not to run a bar (2)

There's a new bar in Sanlitun that's made quite a splash over the last few months, attracted "a following" very quickly.

I was inclined to dislike it for that reason alone. I have whatever is the opposite of 'sheep instinct'; crowds repel me. Especially noisy, younger-than-me crowds.

The decor's anonymous (but at least not obtrusively jarring, as is so often the case), the service pretty piss-poor, the pool table utter shite. And once, long, long ago, it used to be a much nicer bar - so my nostalgic sentiments were working against it from the outset. And it's called Rickshaw, which is a pretty naff, cutesy cutesy Chinesey name.

However, it does benefit from a central location. They have remodelled the place quite cleverly to make the best of the limited space; and it has a nice (though small) open balcony at one end, and and an outdoor seating area (probably an illicit seizure from the adjacent parking lot - a little piece of 'adverse possession', as we lawyers would call it). The food was not too bad. And The Choirboy and various other of my younger friends were developing a bit of a soft spot for it, were starting to make it quite a regular after-work rendezvous point (at least for the up-till-8pm 'happy hour' - the regular prices are just a tad steep).

And I was willing to play along with them. The place did not completely suck. I've enjoyed a few quite decent evenings in there over the past couple of months.

But then..... a couple of weeks ago, I arrived parched and famished after a particularly gruelling day at work. And I could not get the waitress to take my order. I mean, I told her what I wanted, but she wouldn't go and get it for me. It turned out that she wanted me to pay for the food in advance, but she wasn't able to explain that in either Chinese or English. Now, as I've mentioned before recently on here, I try not to blame the staff in these circumstances. This was a new policy, just introduced; the staff should have been briefed on the reason for it, made to understand that careful explanations - and apologies - would often be required for customers who were confused by or resentful of the change.

And it is an utterly f***ing STUPID policy. The service in that place is poor. The food is sometimes not that good. It often takes a long time to come. In circumstances like that, you want to have the recourse of not paying, or not paying in full. It would take you half-an-hour of wrangling to get your money back if you'd already paid.

I don't know of any other bar or restaurant in Beijing that demands money up front. They all, without exception, work on a 'tab' system; and that seems not too problematical.

Switching to a money-up-front regime is just pointless and dumb. Doing that overnight, and not bothering to explain the fact to anyone is beyond-dumb.

Like the place I castigated in my last post, Rickshaw is run by an American. It's easy to think that this kind of ineptitude is characteristically Chinese, that foreigners somehow automatically ought to know better. But it ain't always so.

Rickshaw is now on the 'Hate List'. I'm never going back there again.



PS The thing that really got my back up about this incident was that it took about 10 minutes to work out what the problem was with the food order; during which time, I was absolutely gagging for a beer - but the gormless waitress wouldn't order that for me either. And all she had to do was turn around and speak to the barman who was standing a few feet away. So, eventually I had to walk up to the bar and order a drink for myself.

Ah yes, and then, after protracted discussions with the barman and another waitress who actually spoke a little bit of English, we thought we had collectively explained to the gormless waitress that I did not want to eat if I had to pay first, and was therefore withdrawing my attempt to order a burger. But 25 minutes later, when I had finished my beer and was leaving to go and get a burger in
The Den, Ms Gormless started plaintively following me down the street insisting that my burger was now ready at Rickshaw. Yes, even though I had quite clearly withdrawn my order (even including an elaborate mime of taking the sheet from her order pad, tearing it up, and throwing it away). Even though I'd never really placed my order. Even though I hadn't paid, as I was now apparently required to do before ordering. And even though that is nearly twice as long as it should take the burger to appear. Sometimes the sheer inventiveness of the 'bad service experience' in China is just awe-inspiring.

How not to run a bar

The following is pretty much a verbatim account of a series of interactions I had with the staff at one of my less-favourite Beijing nightspots a few months back.


"My god, this beer's really warm. Didn't you get it out of the fridge?"

"Yes, it's from the fridge."

"Well, why's it warm, then? Did you only just re-stock it?"

"No, I think the beer's been in there all day."

(No sign yet of actually wanting to solve the problem.)

"Well, could you check and see if there are any colder beers in there?"

"No, they're all the same."

"What? They're all warm?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Well, the Chinese don't keep beer cold, do they?"

(Now, this is just way inappropriate and facetious - and just plain bullshit. This is a foreign bar, so we hold you to a higher standard. And besides, while it may be true that many smaller Chinese shops and restaurants are very niggardly in their use of electricity and tend to use chiller cabinets for storage and display only, without plugging them in, such places are a smaller and smaller minority; these days in Beijing, at least in the summer, most restaurants - and all bars - keep their beers chilled; the majority, in fact, keep some in the freezer chest to bring them quickly to a deep chill.)

"Your fridge doesn't appear to be switched on."

"No."

"Why not?"

"I think it's broken or something."

"It looks to me like it isn't plugged in."

"Oh, you could be right."

"It's, like, 8.30pm now; you've been open two hours, and you haven't noticed this yet?"

"I guess not."

"Well, how about you plug it in right now? And put one or two cases of beers in the freezer for now, until the fridge actually starts to get cold? Hey?"

**************************************
I hasten to point out that this was in a foreigner-owned, foreigner-run bar. The above exchange took place with two foreign staff (and, I think, co-investors) behind the bar. So, the lack of instinct for customer service or even basic common sense that I so often decry in this country is not exclusively a Chinese failing.

Ah, and the clincher. When I mentioned this problem to the Big Boss a little later, he said,
"Oh yeah, I guess I forgot to do that. You know, as a bar manager, I have so many things to think about."

No, you don't. Not an overwhelming number. And making sure you have a supply of cold beer to sell to your punters should be just about your Number One Priority.



Can anyone guess where this was??

Another drinking bon mot - rather less positive!

"I envy people who drink. At least they know what to blame everything on."

Oscar Levant (1906-1972)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Devil's Triangle

Three of the best, most quirkily distinctive bars in Beijing are all to be found within a few hundred yards of each other.

In a car park. (A car park that held surprisingly few cars. The idea of paying to park your car somewhere has failed to gain much popularity in Beijing, since there is no effective enforcement of parking regulations, and thus you can park your car on a sidewalk pretty much anywhere you please.) No, not just any old car park - The Car Park.

First, there's Nanjie, a low-rent drinking dive on the east side of the Car Park - established by the mercurial Huxley, one of Beijing's best-known and best-loved bar entrepreneurs. It has probably been the most populous (if not necessarily the most profitable) bar in the city over the past couple of years (although latterly it has tended to get overrun by noxious teens). As with all Huxley's various bar ventures over the years, it has cheap drinks, great bar snacks, and an eclectic selection of music. (I first started becoming a mid-week regular when the foxy Taiwanese BB was DJing there on Wednesday nights; damn, she had fine taste in music.... uncannily similar to my own, that is. And rather untypical for a DJ. Heck, how often have you heard a DJ play Elvis Costello or The Cure? Let alone Tom Waits or Pink Floyd! Many was the time when I was just about to leave, honestly, it's getting late and I really have to work tomorrow, when.... she'd put on a great track that had special resonance for me, and I'd think, oh well, perhaps just one more beer. And we know where that leads.)

Even Nanjie's windowless gloom and bare-bones decor looks positively classy in comparison with the Bus Bar, which lies at the front of Car Park. It really is housed in the shell of an old bus. And the atmosphere is that of a sweaty high school disco. The Bus Bar's distinctive charm, however, is that it is a drugs supermarket. It is frequented solely by dodgy African blokes who are eager to hook you up with whatever you need to get high. Many people are appalled by the sleazery inherent in this. But me - I love sleazery, I'm fascinated by this low-level criminality (and by the fact that it is so freely tolerated by the police), I think the Bus Bar is one of the most characterful, colourful dives in the city. And it's open pretty much 24 hours a day. And they occasionally have some great music; when they've got an African DJ in, the place can be jumping.

And then, hidden away in the back corner of the Car Park, the third point of the 'triangle', there's Yugong Yishan, probably Beijing's best live music bar - and also home to one of its better pool tables. I've had many, many great nights in there.

I nicknamed the Car Park 'The Devil's Triangle' nearly two years ago, when I briefly developed quite a serious mid-week habit for going there. If I felt the urge to indulge in a little wild excess to unwind from the crazy hours I was then working, this was the ideal place to sate that urge. Even if it was an impulsive last-minute thing, quite unpremeditated, even if I had no idea if there were any special events on - even if there were no special events on - you could pretty much guarantee that there would always be a lively scene at at least one of these three joints. The danger was that you could easily get tempted to drop into all three, and then the evening (and the early hours of the morning) would tend to get away from you, to run badly out of control. Yes, as with the dangerous seas and airways around Bermuda, the Car Park has been the scene of many strange and inexplicable phenomena, many sudden 'disappearances'. Usually the disappearance of a hefty wad of cash and a portion of my memory.

But now, those great days are coming to an end. Lu Zhiqiang, Yugong Yishan's owner, rather presciently put a 'chai' symbol (the Chinese character for 'demolish' - which is daubed on the walls of condemned buildings all over the city, just before the bulldozers rumble in) on the bar's commemorative T-shirts. Yep, it was always obvious - if not already known - that such a large expanse of land right in the heart of the city could not remain so under-utilized for long. And now, after two glorious, hedonistic years, the Car Park has been slated for redevelopment into yet another ugly-and-pointless shopping mall. The building preliminaries have already begun, and for the past few weeks the entire area has been closed off by a hastily-constructed wall. A wall with one or two small gaps in it, allowing the bars to linger on stubbornly. Next weekend is supposed to be the grand farewell (at least, for Yugong; Huxley claims he still hasn't been given a formal eviction date, and is hoping to cling on a little while longer). I shall be sorry to miss it; though perhaps it would be rather too poignant an affair for such a soppy old sentimentalist as myself.

All three bars are set to be reborn in new locations. But it won't be the same. It won't be The Triangle....

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Service in China

As I have mentioned a few times before, both here and on brother-blog Froogville, service in China is generally abysmal. Almost unbelievably so at times.

The possible reasons are legion. These include, but are not limited to: poor education, the lack of a tipping culture, the Confucian tradition having somehow omitted a work ethic (hey, I'm no expert on this: but I have not found any evidence of a work ethic in Chinese culture; and the Chinese themselves are apt to attribute their entire culture - well, the social ethics of it, anyway - to Confucius; so I think he should bear the blame for its shortcomings as well as reaping the praise for its strengths), appallingly low rates of pay, and bosses being too indolent and penny-pinching to devote any efforts whatsoever to staff training.

I always try to be tolerant and understanding with the individuals concerned. I put most of the blame on the bosses. Particularly in 'Western' bars and restaurants, where you'd expect the standards to be a little higher, the management to be a little more savvy.

There's a British "restaurant" in my 'hood called Fish Nation. Fish'n'chips has never been my thing (things of the sea, no good for me); but the chips are usually pretty decent, the sausages are excellent, and they do a good range of other comfort foods too - pizza, chilli, a breakfast fry-up. The one near me, on Nanluoguxiang, also has a lovely roof terrace.

Unfortunately, the staff never seem to think of coming up to the roof terrace to ask if any of the people there would like to order something. You can sit up there entirely unmolested for half an hour or an hour at a time. If you would actually like to eat or drink something - rather than just enjoying the sunshine for free - you have to holler down the stairs to get some attention. If the food is then taking a very long time to appear (and it often seems to), it may also be wise to go downstairs and collect it yourself. Perhaps the waiters suffer from climacophobia (a morbid fear of staircases, and the possibility of falling on them). Or perhaps they're just lazy and dim-witted.

It puts me in a dilemma. I really like the food, the ambience, the location. And their draft beer is usually pretty good (a real rarity in Beijing). But the service is just appalling. This is an instance where I don't entirely blame the management (at least not in regard to training, though probably in regard to staff selection and supervision). The guys working there at the moment are dumb as posts. If this were Europe or North America, I'd boycott the place in perpetuity - no question. But here in China..... we learn to put up with an awful lot.

Yesterday, I had a similar experience in another of my old favourites on that street (I won't "name and shame" because I have a huge soft spot for the place, and I am clinging to the hope that this might have been just a one-off aberration): The waiter gave me a menu. I perused it for a couple of minutes. I made an order. The waiter said, "Oh, our kitchen is being re-built at the moment. We only have pizza and salad." This is not the time to tell me.

Really, you have to laugh. Otherwise you'd go completely MAD.

Friday, July 20, 2007

HBH 39

The whole sky shimmers;
Lake reflects hidden lightning.
Warm rain, long walk home.


Yes, the highlight of my recent trip to Hangzhou was an enormous thunderstorm - and being caught out in the middle of it with no umbrella.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Unique Selling Point

This is a local beer from Hangzhou, and it's actually not half bad. It was a great comfort to me during my long, lonely hours in a hotel room. I wonder if it's a new brand, because I don't think I saw any of this SiWo when I was last down there a year-and-a-bit ago. Alas, it is not available in bars, nor in most restaurants - only from your local supermarket or 'convenient store'.

The thing that really distinguishes it from the general run of Chinese beers? Check out the thin red banner underneath the brand name!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How not to 'position' a bar

I was stuck in Hangzhou over the past few days.

Although a very large city, it has a pretty small expat community...... and NO decent bars. It has a few bars, but no particularly good ones. (I "did the tour" when my pal The Chairman was working down there last year.)

The biggest bar disappointment is 'Casablanca'.

It's right by the famous Xihu (West Lake). But it doesn't have a view of the lake.

The sign above the door actually says:
Casablanca - Country Pub.

Incongruous? Just a little.

It is emphatically not a 'country pub'. Nor does it have anything about it even vaguely suggestive of the great Hollywood film, or of the legendary Rick's Café Americain where it was set. Not even a few stills or posters or a map of Africa on the wall.

In fact, it's a fairly typical American-style bar: large and rambling, with lots of nooks and corners, bare floorboards and simple wooden furniture. Not unpromising, but.... completely characterless. And it suffers from all the typical Chinese vices: duff draft beer, high prices, concussed-bee service, and really loud, bad 'background' music - which they refuse to turn down even when you are the only customer in the place.

Guys, you are getting a lot of people through the door because of the name, and your location. But none of them are staying. Do you think you might be doing something wrong??

Monday, July 16, 2007

Essential China tip - best Web proxy yet!!

A cross-post from Froogville. I don't do this often, but this is important.



My cyber-pal Leah was saying a little while ago that she couldn't be bothered with the Firefox workaround the rest of us have been relying on to circumvent The Great Firewall here in China. However, only in the secluded environs of a comment did she explain that she was able to spurn the Firefox option because she was getting by just fine with a site called Kallahar's Place.

I admit, I was sceptical at first. I think I tried it when she first mentioned it to me several months ago, and it seemed not to work..... so, I just thought, "A-ha, good in America; no good in China."

But now, it's working fine. Or at least, "Method #2" on the page is ("Method #3" is annoyingly glitchy, and "Method #1" is a link to the Proxify service - which, at present, appears to be "no good in China"): you just type in your desired URL, and away you go.

The big advantage of this proxy is that it enables you to leave comments on blogs. None of the others I've tried has allowed this. Very useful.

Tulsa, take note. You have no excuse for not keeping up with your commenting duties from the office now.


PS I have just found one rather odd glitch with "Method #2" - the browser gets "stuck" on the webpage you're visiting, and you can't easily get back to the Kallahar proxy page to visit other websites. Well, you can..... if you click 'Refresh'!! Watch out for that.

More Hemingway

"Drinking is a way of ending the day."

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Friday, July 13, 2007

HBH 38

She's back

After long silence -
An unexpected hello.
Heart flip-flops again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Unhelpful

I mentioned my old pal The Bookseller in a comment on my '300' post just now - probably my favourite of all the anecdotes about him.

However, I thought it was about time I commemorated him again in the wide open spaces of a post.

Once, when we were students at Oxford, we were walking back to college through the city centre late one Friday or Saturday night, after consuming several beers, and I impetuously (oh, don't censure me - it was a lonely impulse of delight!) began kicking an abandoned traffic cone down the street. Unfortunately, there was a policeman in our path I hadn't noticed; and, feeling bored and short of entertainment, and perhaps being rather hostile to the relentless studenty "high-jinks" in that part of town, he decided to make a little bit of an example of me. Now, I repeat: the cone was abandoned in the middle of the street when I found it; someone else had already removed it from wherever it had been placed on duty. And there were, at that time, about a million traffic cones in Oxford; it wasn't as if the removal of one or two was going to constitute any public safety hazard. And I hadn't brought it very far: 4 or 5 kicks, probably no more than a hundred yards in total. In fact, the policeman had probably been able to watch me find the cone (abandoned in the middle of the street) and start kicking it.

A potentially ugly situation. The policeman wants to get all officious, give me the big lecture about how irresponsible it is to remove warning cones from roadworks. I am going to play submissive (but not too submissive) in order to get away from him as quickly and painlessly as possible.

What I really don't need in that situation is for The Bookseller to kick off the conversation by saying: "I'm sorry about my friend, officer - he's PISSED."

Oh, the irony. I'm sure The Bookseller was then - as almost invariably - even more pissed than me. Hell, he tends to sound (and behave!) kind of slurred even when he's sober.

On another similar occasion, I had spotted the police up ahead in time, and had hastily tossed whatever contraband it was we were playing with on that occasion over the side of Magdalen Bridge into the river. Two cops in a parked patrol car had spotted something, but they weren't sure what; so they pulled us up for questioning for a couple of minutes. Much to my relief, this time The Bookseller let me do pretty much all the talking, and I finessed our way out of trouble quite swiftly. As we resumed our walk home - not two yards from the open window of the car the policemen had just got back into - he observed, very loudly: "Phew, that was close."

With friends like this - it's amazing I didn't wind up in jail long ago.

Monday, July 09, 2007

300!

Having tried just about everything to get this blog more widely noticed and appreciated (jokes, bar reviews, political discussions, poetry, 'live blog' interactivity, Googlewhackable phrase-making)..... I thought it might be time to give SEX a go.

I haven't seen this film yet (it doesn't seem to have appeared in the pirate DVD stalls yet.... though perhaps I just missed its brief period of ubiquity: this is what happens if you cease to be a regular shopper), but this is certainly a very striking, very amusing poster. And I've had a bit of a crush on the lovely Lena Headey since her debut (as a schoolgirl, I suppose), ever such a long time ago, in 'Waterland'. Nice to see her getting a taste of Hollywood mega-stardom at last.

[An aside: I had been convinced that she was in Alan Bleasdale's TV series 'Jake's Progress' as well, but IMDB thinks not. How could I have been so mistaken?]

Anyway, in case you hadn't realised.... THIS is post No. 300 here on the Barstool. WOW!!!

A familiar feeling?

"It only takes one drink to get me drunk. The trouble is, I can't remember if it's the thirteenth or the fourteenth."

George Burns (1896-1996)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bar Crazy

I was just down in Xi'An (one of the earliest capitals of China, and home to the famous Terracotta Army) for a day.

The last time I was there, a few years ago, it was conspicuous for its absence of foreigner-friendly entertainments. It seems there's still a relatively small resident expat community there; the vast majority of foreigners in the city are tourists who stay only for a day or two.

This omission has now been 'corrected'. Yes, Xi'An now has a designated 'Bar Street'. One of those 'triumphs' of central planning. The city government decrees that there will be a 'Bar Street', and lo, a 'Bar Street' there is. I'd be curious to know exactly what mechanisms they employ to bring this about. It's such a wonderfully pointless achievement, but somehow rather impressive nonetheless (rather like The Great Wall and The Three Gorges Dam, you might say). [We have a couple of these White Elephant bar developments in Beijing, too: Yuandadu Jiuba Jie and Nuren Jie. Almost nobody ever goes there.]

I didn't clock the name of this new Xi'an 'Bar Street', but it was parallel to Nan Dajie, a block to the west, and just under a mile south of the Bell Tower Square in the centre of the city. I happened on it quite by chance, while taking a (rain-dampened) relaxing, leg-stretching, exploratory wander on the evening of my arrival.

And what a strange sight it is. Quite quaint, cobbled, more-or-less pedestrianized, but.... all the bars look the same. Exactly the same. And they all look like coffee shops (this is a common Chinese vice that I have frequently railed against in the comment-threads on my blogs). In fact, most of them call themselves coffee shops - usually with astoundingly naff names (ah, Chinglish) like 'Racy Taste Coffee'. A few of them had some live music. A few of them had customers. Chinese customers, that is. Still no foreigners in sight. No, the Street wasn't exactly doing a roaring trade - and I don't think that was just because of the weather.

The bars all seemed quite nicely, quite expensively decorated and furnished (although, in fact, these things can be stunningly inexpensive in China). And yet almost all of them had at least one or two letters, often more, that had dropped off their signs above the door and had not been replaced - hence such puzzles as 'Blu* **unt*in C**fe*' and 'C**fee M*sic *ar'. I suspect this is evidence that the proprietors splashed a little cash on setting them up but will not spend a further penny on them now that it has become apparent that they are all money-sinks.

Guess how many bars there were. Go on, guess. In a street perhaps a quarter of a mile long. How many?

27. I counted.

I confess I may have got the figure slightly wrong. It really was difficult to tell where one bar ended and another began, since they nearly all looked so similar in style and decor. Some had two entrances and some had one. Some had two signs (the name, and then something like 'Coffee Bar' or 'Live Music'), and some had one; some perhaps had none - or had a sign which had become extremely inconspicuous by virtue of having had all of its letters fall of. Some unobtrusive (easily missed), isolated doorways proved - on closer inspection - to lead to separate bars upstairs or in the basement.

No, the counting wasn't at all easy. I think the true total might actually be considerably more than 27.

Did I go in any of them? Of course not! Naff 'coffee bars' - not my scene at all.

No, I found myself a grotty noodle restaurant and drank two or three of the cheapest beers on the menu.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Unlucky 13

All good things come to an end.

It wasn't long ago that I was eulogising Club 13 as on one of the best music bars in town, one of the best pool bars in town, one of my very favourite hangouts. I have been a semi-regular there now for two years or so - since shortly after it opened.

There has always been one black mark against it. It doesn't really make any concession to non-Chinese speakers. Now, I don't have any objection to that in itself. It's not, after all, a bar aimed primarily at foreigners; most of the foreigners who do come in are students keen to practise their Chinese; and it's not that difficult to order a drink in Chinese. However, 9 times out of 10, a failure to employ staff with even rudimentary English is allied to ruthless penny-pinching and a complete disregard of any kind of service ethic. And such, I fear, is the case at Club 13. Few of the staff speak more than a few words of English. Few of them seem to stay there for more than a few weeks (unless they are being constantly rotated to different days of the week??). And the service is often pretty fucking abysmal.

But that's China. Almost every bar and restaurant is like that. You learn to put up with it if a place has enough other redeeming features.

It has been a particular worry to me for some time (a year or so, at least) that Club 13 has been trying to charge for its pool table. You just don't do that; it's silly; it's penny-pinching; it's unworkable. Remember how angry I got about the disgraceful Ball House a few weeks back? Even worse than the purported 15 kuai per hour table charge is the 100 kuai deposit on the balls. The only warning of this is a tiny notice (written in Chinese only) on a blackboard slate perched on one of the nearby tables. The staff always seem to have been very half-hearted about enforcing this. It is a policy, as the saying goes, "more honoured in the breach than the observance". I've rarely even been asked to pay this charge; and when I have been, I've simply refused.... and played anyway. As does everyone else.

Ah, but this week..... The Chairman went to get the balls from the bar. And The Chairman is meek, compliant, weak, a blunderer. He was asked to pay the table deposit, and agreed. I tried to remonstrate with the staff as soon as I realised what had happened, but once they'd got the money we were in a very weak bargaining position. This time, it looked like we'd have to pay for the table. Oh well, not the end of the world. Only 15 kuai an hour (about $2), after all.

However, we only played for just under an hour-and-a-half, and they were trying to demand a 30 kuai table fee. Now, guys, if you want to be like that, maybe we'll just keep playing till 10.05. Be reasonable.

This is where the whole idea of table charges in bars falls apart. In a pool hall, OK - two people share a table for an extended period of time. It's easy enough to monitor, it's reasonable enough to impose a charge. In a bar, pool is a more broadly social pastime. You don't want to hog the table if other people are waiting for a game. There's usually a board for writing up a waiting-list of people wanting to play. In serious pool bars, there's almost always a winner-stays-on-the-table convention. So, unless one person wants to treat everybody else to an hour or so of play (I suppose in China, that could happen - they're big on the idea of one person picking up the dinner tab for everyone), it's impossible to tell who owes what. Having a deposit on the balls is even more problematical: is each new player expected to hand a 100 note to the player vacating the table for him?? And 100 kuai really is a huge amount: I'm pretty sure a set of balls doesn't cost that much. And I also find it pretty fucking rude - what, you don't trust me? I've been in your bar 20 or 30 times playing pool, and you still think I might try to run off with a complete set of balls?!

And then - guess what? They didn't want to give us our deposit back. The waiter we'd given the money to claimed he didn't have the money and couldn't give it to us. He asked the girl behind the bar to give us the money, but she claimed she couldn't, claimed she didn't know where the money was. (It's right there, in that open cash tray behind the bar, 12" away from me!) They'd already been dicking The Chairman around for quite a few minutes before I intervened. Then they dicked me around for quite a few minutes more. We were, at this stage, still asking quite politely why we couldn't get our money back. But the girl behind the bar, the one in charge of the money, decided that she'd rather pout and scowl and be doing something terribly important with her mobile phone (and it wasn't even as if she were making a call or writing a message; she was just gazing dumbly at the screen, maybe playing one of those inane games on it, or reading her day's text message spam) rather than pay any attention to us.

Now, these idiots had already hit nearly all of my hot buttons in quick succession, but that was just the final straw. That girl was the most senior member of staff on duty (just about the only visible member of staff on duty - the various waiters mostly lounge around indolently, looking like customers; or else disappear into the shadows altogether), the owner/manager's obvious representative, the one in charge of the money. There is no way someone in that position should EVER be paying more attention to their mobile phone than to customers who are trying to talk to them. That is SO FAR BEYOND RUDE...... words fail me!!!

I went completely fucking ballistic on her. I'm not proud of myself. I rather wish it hadn't happened. I would never dream of making such a scene anywhere else, in any other country I have ever visited. It is a learned behaviour. Even when I am furious (and I was), I vent my fury in a controlled way, to a directed purpose. And you know what? It works. I find it deeply unfortunate, but this is the culture here: this is how the Chinese complain; and sometimes, alas, it seems to be the only behaviour that recalcitrant staff will recognise and respond to. If you shout and scream and stamp your foot and throw in a few choice swear words and attract the attention of other customers...... they'll give in and give you what you want. They'll sulk and back-sass, but they'll give you what you want. I really do wish it wasn't so bloody difficult.

"PUT THAT FUCKING PHONE DOWN AND GIVE US THE GODDAMNED MONEY - RIGHT NOW!" Job done. But I don't feel good about it. And it had taken nearly 15 minutes.

Alas, Club 13 is now on my 'Hate List'.

Maybe I'll give it a reprieve in a few months, after my summer break. After all, it's still a good music venue. It has good bands. A good pool table. The booze is cheap.

Insanely bad service we must simply learn to tolerate.

Will I be allowed back? Oh yes, I expect so. There's not really any concept of 'barring' people here. And I doubt they'll even recognise me; they didn't seem to recognise me from my numerous previous visits (the Chinese do tend to be bad at discriminating between foreign faces; they often claim that "all foreigners look alike"). In fact, I think all the staff that night (except for the super-annoying girl behind the bar) were new. And they'll probably all have been replaced within a month or so (including the super-annoying girl, with any luck).

It is a sorry occasion, though, when one of your best-loved haunts turns so emphatically, so catastrophically to SHIT.... just as you're about to go on your summer holiday. Ah, China....

Friday, July 06, 2007

HBH 37

Hiatus

Empty Thursdays loom,
Our weekly therapy lost.
One guitar missing.


Yep, no more jazz nights at Jianghu for a couple of months, as my Django Rheinhardt-channelling guitar buddy takes a restorative summer break back in France. I've only been going once a month or so - rather than every week like some people - but I'll miss it. Perhaps Dan will continue to gig on his own occasionally....

This haiku brought to you early, but time-stamped for Friday anyway - to maintain a semblance of order in the world.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Beware of NLP

While writing my little post last week on the pleasures of watchlessness, of timelessness..... I managed to lose my watch.

Since I was already late leaving for the office, was departing for a working trip to Shanghai that evening, would be in need of accurate time-keeping for the 3-hr presentation I had to give the next day.... this was somewhere beyond inconvenient.

I spent a fruitless half-hour (making myself even more late) scouring my apartment, gnashing my teeth.

I didn't find it again until my return on Sunday evening. I had put it in my cutlery tray in the kitchen. Why? I never take my watch off in the kitchen. I never leave it in such an improbable place. Since I'm not cooking at home very much these days, it might well have been some days, or even weeks, before I happened upon it there. I could probably have looked at it and not seen it, because that is such an outrageously improbable place for me to have left it.

These are the dangers of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. I inadvertently self-sabotaged myself by writing words in praise of being without a watch. I am checking myself every few seconds while writing this to make sure that I haven't again unthinkingly taken my watch off and left it somewhere stupid.

Beware, my readers, beware. Your mind can fuck you up in the most unlikely ways.

Traffic Report - blog stats for June

31 posts and nearly 10,000 words here on the Barstool last month.

Not much sign of a cutting back in output at all! Particularly when you consider that I contributed several thousand more words to a single comment thread, during my month-long war of words - on guns & cigs, and attempts to restrict the harm they do - with my opinionated drinking buddy, The British Cowboy.

I will try to be a little more moderate this month. Honestly. In my drinking as well as my blogging.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Oscar's

I haven't yet found a bar I like in Shanghai.

I rather doubt I'm ever going to find one. It just doesn't strike me as being a fun town - in the sleazy, low-rent kind of way that I so enjoy.

I've been there 5 or 6 times over the last 18 months, and the only bar I find myself seeking out is an American-style sports bar named Oscar's.

On my first ever visit, I found that it was a convenient place to wait for the friend who was putting me up to get home from work (it was only a few minutes' walk away from the apartment she had then).

It's quite central, and easy to find - so I've found myself going back there almost every time since...... merely a slave to convenience and familiarity; I have still developed no real enthusiasm for the place.

Same story this weekend. My friend L (a different one, living over by the river, to the north) was busy most of the day on Saturday, and didn't have anywhere in her building complex she could leave a key for me. I was done with work by lunchtime, and facing a sweltering afternoon of hauling my luggage around the centre of town until I could rendezvous with her that evening. I tried exploring, sightseeing, shopping for a while, but the humidity was ugly. Then I got my bearings, realised Oscar's was only a mile or so away, and set my course.

Now, the place does have a few things going for it. There is a good selection of imported beers. The beers on draft mostly taste pretty good (something that you rarely or never find with any consistency in Beijing). There's a fairly decent pool table upstairs (though one of those loathsome American designs with the super-slick cloth, rock-hard cushion rails, extra-wide pockets, and sharply angled pocket jaws - not good for a Brit like me; not good for anyone, really, who favours a tactical game over flashy - but not terribly difficult - potting). And they keep their beer mugs in the ice-box to frost them (an American quirk I've grown rather fond of). Also (and this is probably the main reason it has become such a regular destination for me), they always have a pile of free tourist maps of the city (I've only ever seen these at a few other places. 'Tourist Information' offices certainly don't have them! In fact, they are now rare as hen's teeth. Oscar's seems to have laid in a stock of thousands of the things.... although I notice they are still labelled 2006....).

A promising haunt, then. So, what's not to like? It's hard to put a finger on it, but the place is strangely charmless. It probably doesn't help that I've usually only been there in the afternoons, when the place is pretty much deserted. And when there are people in, they are exclusively expats. There are a few places in Beijing that share that vice - and I avoid them too. I didn't come all this way to live in a fascinating, crazy, fast-changing country..... and then spend all my time hanging out in places where the only Chinese faces I would ever see belonged to the serving staff. Some people seem to like that kind of environment; I don't.

Ah, yes - and it's bloody expensive. There's an "all day" Happy Hour until 8pm - half-price drinks. Very nice, you might think. Except that the regular prices are very nearly twice as much as you'd pay in Beijing. And I don't just mean twice as much as you'd pay in the sort of low-rent, student-friendly dives that I favour. No, twice as much as you'd pay in a comparable bar, an upmarket, affluent expat bar.

And that's pretty standard for Shanghai. Shanghai is wince-makingly expensive. That's the reason why I only go there 2 or 3 times a year. That's the reason why I never go to Oscar's after 8pm.

Reasons not to love an airline

There is no beer on China Eastern.

Enough said.

Back to Hemingway (Bon mot for the week)

"An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk in order to spend his time with fools."

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)